Hendon is a place on earth

In Hendon
November 26, 2009

So, tomorrow a piece of writing of mine is going to go public in a way that I’m not allowed to talk about. I know, mysterious right? But all will be revealed very soon.

Anyway, it’s a piece of writing about Hendon. Which makes me anticipate the inevitable reaction that I’ll get from the people of Hendon (which is where I live, where I’ve lived for the past seven years, where many of my friends live). When Disobedience was published, a lot of Hendon people and indeed a lot of Jewish friends said things to me along the lines of “why do you hate us so much? What have we done? What’s wrong with Hendon? It’s a wonderful place! Why don’t you love us?”

Which, sigh, makes me feel rather like a cliched sitcom husband trying to explain to his wife that the suggestion that she not go to a business meeting in a bikini comes from a place that is the exact opposite of hate. That sometimes you can love a place or a person so much that you wish they’d communicate their wonder better to the world, or wouldn’t keep undermining themselves in these stupid, petty ways.

So this evening I thought I would share a story of something that happened to me today which is the best way I know to express the glory of Hendon.

This has not been a great week. It’s been very busy, full of meetings, so time’s been tight and the one thing I didn’t need was for my internet at home to be cut off for almost two days, especially when my gameplan for getting everything done included needing to be online from 10pm when I got home, and all the Starbucks’ round here close at nine. Even so it would have been maybe OK if I hadn’t woken up this morning with a migraine which felt almost exactly like a cigarette trying to burn its way out from the inside of my skull via my left eye. I have people coming for dinner tomorrow night. I have articles to write and presentations to plan and interviews to do. But all I could do was turn off the lights and close the curtains and lie in bed and wail.

This afternoon, at about 2pm, just before I passed out into a comatose sleep, I finally thought ‘no way am I getting all the cooking done for tomorrow night. It’s just not going to happen’. So, from my darkened migraine room I called my local butcher. The butcher is Nissim, he is on Brent Street, he and his wife make great chicken soup and wonderful roast potatoes and kugels and salads and just… if you are around these parts, go there. I called up and said “are you delivering this evening?” (I didn’t really have to ask, it’s Shabbes tomorrow, of course they’re delivering) and ordered a bunch of food.

Less than four hours later, a lovely young man, Mr and Mrs Nissim’s son, arrived at my door with my chickens and kugels and soups. And he stopped for a chat, that was the thing. He wasn’t a supermarket delivery man with a timetable to keep to, he’s just a guy and he knows me and knows my family. We chatted about what food I was making, about his family, his wife, what restaurants we like, what recipes are nicest with lamb. Basically he was doing what delivery men always used to do which is: not just to make their job nicer by getting to know people but also to make sure I was OK. I didn’t even really notice that he’d stopped to chat with me – it seemed totally normal – but a friend who isn’t Jewish was here and was amazed, just amazed, that we’d spent those few minutes on the doorstep, and I remembered why this is so unusual.

There’s no delivery charge. There’s no minimum order. There’s no arbitrary cutoff point. There’s no timetable demanding that the guy move on as quickly as possible. If I were an elderly woman ordering one carton of chicken soup a week, they’d still bring it round and chat on the doorstep. They’d notice if I seemed frailer, or confused, or just sad. If I didn’t answer they might call someone – a member of my family, or a community representative.

This never used to be so unusual. I remember my grandmother’s butcher and grocer and fishmonger and greengrocer coming around every week, stopping for a chat, sharing the gossip and swapping recipes and news. Somehow, in the space of my lifetime, we’ve mostly lost that sense of urban community, though. Instead of stopping for a chat, we order online and accept deliveries with a terse grunt and a signature. No one says, as the guy said to me tonight ‘hey, I don’t have change. Just pay when you’re in the shop next.’ Except in Hendon, and places like it.

People often seem really puzzled that I still live in Hendon. I suppose because I’m a writer they think I should be living somewhere edgier, cooler, or maybe more rural for that Walden vibe. Maybe they imagine that, having written a mildly controversial book, no one in Hendon will talk to me anymore. But it doesn’t work like that; I may be a bit of a black sheep, but I’m still part of the flock.

So what can I say? Hendon, I still love you. Whatever you might have heard, you’re still a part of me. There’s a reason that I write about you as if you were a shtetl: it’s because you’re the closest thing to a shtetl that still exists. Yes, you may have your narrow-minded side. Yes, you may be conservative and conformist. Yes, those pants do not suit you. But you’re still a good place. Now come here and give me a hug.

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